Howard Don Small
current mood: sad
current song: Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing
An old friend of mine died this morning.
He was the director of the St. Mark's choir most of the time I was there. I loved him. I still do.
He was well over six feet tall and must have weighed 150 pounds soaking wet. He wore thick, unfashionable glasses and the most beautiful smile you have ever seen. When I auditioned, he acted delighted that I had joined them: an awkward, atheist soprano with a rough voice and vague idea of the tune who couldn't sight read and who didn't even know how to put on a choir robe.
He made everyone feel that way: instantly part of his choral family. He was so, so kind. He just radiated gentle, intelligent kindness. Always.
And he was brilliant: graduated from Eastman and with a glorious sense of music and style. He was an incredible organist; listening to him was like riding a thunderstorm. He preferred the same simple American hymns I do, and he was a composer as well: publishing several of his arrangements and his original pieces.
I loved singing for him. He stood in front of us every Sunday with his face lit up with joy to hear us; he was a subtle conductor, but often in his own way: head tilted, body swaying, would dance in our sound.
To be part of his instrument was glorious.
He wrote an arrangement to "Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing" which always brought me to tears. I especially loved the line: "Oh, to grace, how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be" because I feel so grateful to grace, and yes, to Jesus, for letting me into His church where I never really belonged and for letting me sing the most glorious music ever written. Perhaps it seems odd to be grateful to Jesus for lending me His music instead of dying for our sins like everyone else does, but there you have it: I am a great debtor to grace. And glad to be.
He always looked right at me when we sang that line, because he knew I understood what it meant.
He called me one of his "favorite sopranos." He hugged us all in his funny, formal way with his heart just right there on his face for all to see whenever we saw him. Seeing him made my heart glad, every time I saw him. Losing him is sadder than I can say.
Although I'm not an atheist anymore, I'm not so sure about heaven and following rules to get there. I do know this: wherever Don is, I hope choirs of heavenly angels are singing. Flaming tongues and all.